This week, rumors began to surface that if given the opportunity, star Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard would opt to leave Orlando and ideally play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Howard's current five-year, $80 million contract ends after next season, and word has it that the Lakers are growing weary of current center Andrew Bynum's frequent injuries, and are seemingly interested in bringing some youth into the rotation. Much of this is speculation, and much like the two-year media frenzy prior to LeBron James's own free agency, we won't know what will happen until that time comes in the summer of 2012.
Again, much like the soap opera that LeBron's free agency and subsequent move to Miami became, members of the media are attacking any such move by Howard, and have taken the opportunity to criticize any sort of movement by players away from their current teams. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel took the opportunity to rail against the NBA Players Association and call for an NFL-style "franchise" tag:
"And this is why NBA commissioner David Stern needs to crush the player's union during the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations and implement an NFL-style "franchise" tag that makes it nearly impossible for star players like Howard to leave teams, towns and taxpayers stranded."
Bianchi also called on the City of Orlando to sue the Magic and the NBA for $500 million in the event of a departure by Howard, that amount being the cost of the new Amway Center, or as Bianchi called it the "Scamway Center."
Bianchi tries to make the case that it is unfair to allow NBA players to have mobility within the league because, as stated above, it "leaves towns and taxpayers stranded."
This anger comes at a time when multiple cities are facing a future with a star-less team, namely Cleveland (the Cavs without LeBron), and likely Denver, if any sort of deal to trade Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks or Nets comes to pass.
I find this criticism to be completely unwarranted, and represents the sort of arrogance and entitlement that Cleveland had toward LeBron. Although not nearly as incendiary as Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's letter to fans, Bianchi's rant wreaks of ownership, as he seems to suggest that Orlando is simply entitled to have Dwight Howard to themselves, much like Cleveland's perceived "ownership" of LeBron James.
Much like Cleveland, Orlando is not necessarily the top destination for NBA free agents. Sure, it's in Florida, and Disney's nearby, but why go to Orlando when you could go cosmopolitan Miami?
The NBA is, as it has always been, a star-driven, players' league. Stars want to play on deep, talented teams with other superstars. Players are naturally drawn to cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Miami. These are cities with real star power, and are some of the best teams in the league (or in the case of the Knicks, they're a team with a lot of potential).
This is a player-driven league. They have the ultimate leverage. People come to see players, not owners or coaches. Players want the best opportunity possible to win championships, and I don't blame them. This is why players join the league: to be successful and reach the top. They are perfectly within their right to seek out the best opportunity to win. The idea of being able to "franchise" players is unfair and forces superstars to remain in an unfavorable situation where they have no chance to advance. Ownership makes their money and is given license to short-change the team while holding "franchise players" hostage.
It seems that Orlando will be a perennial regular season powerhouse and proceed to be outplayed in the playoffs. The Lakers are a perennial playoff powerhouse who knows how to win championships. Free agency may be Dwight Howard's best shot at moving to a championship caliber team. The Magic need to let go of their sense of entitlement and realize that the NBA is a star-driven league where powerhouses dominate. Build a better team, or face the consequences.